Unaccompanied Veterans Program — Laid to Rest with Honor and Dignity
In June 2013, I had the honor to be selected as the Deputy Director of the Texas State Veterans Cemeteries, Texas Veterans Land Board. Within my first year, I learned of an organization known as the Missing in America Project, which locates, identifies and inters the unclaimed cremated remains of American Veterans. Soon after learning of the organization, I was informed the remains of six unclaimed Veterans were located in Texas and the organization sought the support of the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery for interment. They were hoping to hold the services in October 2014. After requesting the eligibility documentation for the six Veterans, I was able to determine each one was eligible to receive a proper and dignified burial.
During my review of the DD-214 discharge forms, the first one I read caused me to pause. It was for retired Air Force Master Sergeant Thomas Donald Russell, 78 years old, with 20 years of honorable service. As an Air Force Veteran with 22 years of honorable service, I realized this could be me in the same situation. I was shaken to the core by the thought of passing this world alone and with no recognition of my service to this country. I contacted the cemetery staff and had them explain the standard protocols for burying unclaimed Veterans. These services were considered “direct no witness,” meaning the unclaimed Veterans remains were brought to the cemetery and interred without any formal service or recognition. After discovering this, I had the cemetery staff contact as many supporters as possible to conduct an honorable and dignified service for the six unclaimed Veterans. These groups included the Patriot Guard Riders and other Veteran organizations along with members of the community. Master Sergeant Russell and the five other Veterans earned the right for a dignified burial through their honorable service to our nation and we intended to give them what they earned and deserved. At that point, it was decided that we would no longer simply place Veterans within our hallowed grounds with no military honors conducted.
The service they receive should be no less than those afforded other Veterans simply because they came to us with no next-of-kin. As a military family, we are the next of kin.
While the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery and members of the local community had begun a smaller version of this, the unaccompanied Veterans program was not fully implemented at all Texas State Veterans Cemeteries until a clear and consistent standard was established for providing honorable and dignified services to all Veterans interred within our grounds, no matter where they may have found themselves during their lives.
It has been a tremendous honor and privilege for me to lead this program and ensure that all Veterans receive a burial service deserving of the many sacrifices they made for our country. Since this program has officially started, we have had the privilege to conduct services for 88 unaccompanied Veterans at our four cemeteries. Knowing these Veterans were laid to rest with dignity, honor and respect gives me great pride in our program and our amazing team.
I am also grateful to Texas Land Commissioner and VLB Chairman George P. Bush for his support and commitment to Veterans and those in uniform. His focus on their needs motivates me to seek bigger and better ways to honor Veterans and their families.